This untitled drawing shows a little girl encountering a group of onion-head characters that appear to be floating from the sky in the company of two old-fashioned fighter planes, one of which is piloted by a cat. The planes, onions and girl are all depicted in empty space with no distinction between ground and air, increasing the mystery of the image. The girl’s close-cropped bob and her dark green dress recall children’s book illustrations from the early years of the twentieth century; the propeller-driven planes and the goggles and helmet just visible on one pilot’s head belong to the same era. The nine onion-head characters all have the same cartoon faces delineated by crudely-drawn eyes, a dot for the nose, and elongated red mouths. They appear friendly, almost smiling. The girl holds one, as though she has just picked it up, although she seems not to have noticed that it has a face and partly covers its mouth, which is turned away from her, with her hand.
Drawing is central to Dzama’s practice, usually done on the same small scale pieces of paper, initiated as a result of being forced to work in a hotel room after his house burned down (http:www.kultureflash.net/archive/199/priview.html accessed 19 November 2009). To make larger images, he joins many small pages. At first they were made using pencil, over which he would draw with ink, before filling in the forms with watercolour and root beer syrup – a substance he discovered creates a shade of brown he particularly likes and cannot get from any other medium. Around 2000, Dzama stopped using pencil to create the outlines and began using pen directly. In 2006 he returned to using pencil and dispensed with the ink.
Groups of similar figures are a recurring motif in Dzama’s paintings and drawings, which present fictional species – anthropomorphised and hybridised animals and plants – and humans interacting in various ways. Uniforms and costumes inspired by the garments of such 1940s cartoon characters as John Kirby’s Captain America – worn by two groups of women in T12583, for example – emphasise the notion of stereotypes central to the psychology of the comic strip. Dzama uses a dull palette dominated by shades of browns, greens and greys, enlivened occasionally by splashes of vermilion – particularly to colour flowers in T12587 and birds in T12586. Although Dzama had already established his personal style before he encountered the work of the outsider artist Henry Darger (1892–1973), there are striking parallels between their stylised and frequently naked figures repeated in groups, their sourcing of images from cartoons and comics and the combination of innocence and extreme cruelty depicted in large friezes and collages. Both often depict worlds at war; in Darger’s work this has been interpreted as an expression of his inner conflict; in Dzama’s case, violence enters the unconscious from current affairs discussed on the news. Based in Winnipeg, Canada until he moved to New York in 2004, he has related the empty space in his drawings to the empty vastness around the city of Winnipeg. Just before relocating, he commented:
Because of my geographical isolation, most of the news that I hear comes from the radio. In fact, most of my understanding of the world is filtered through this perspective. I think my work reflects that distance and equally that understanding as well. When the news is bloody and fearful, my work reflects it.
I like to place my characters inside of the page or canvas. They are small, and pretty much out of touch with the rest of the world ...
I think that mostly people who live in such isolation always have a desire to reach out and be a part of something else. For me it can feel quite powerless being in a place where you cannot possibly help or affect change.
(Quoted in The Last Winter, [p1.].)
Offering narratives that are never overtly spoken but remain ambiguous, Dzama’s images allow for many possible readings. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their old-fashioned aesthetic reminiscent of the war years is reassuringly familiar, while their disturbed psychological dimension recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s iconography with twentieth-century popular culture.
Marcel Dzama, The Last Winter, London 2004.
The Course of Human History Personified: Marcel Dzama, exhibition catalogue, David Zwirner, New York 2005.
Marcel Dzama: Tree with Roots, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 2006.